Principles of Judgment (Romans 2:1–16)


In turning to this section, one can recognize considerable similarity with 1:18–32. Human inadequacy in the light of divine standards continues to characterize the discussion (cf. “without excuse” in 1:20, and “no excuse” in 2:1). The indictment continues to be stated first in broad terms, with no indication whether the people in view are Jews or Gentiles (cf. 1:18; 2:1), but as the picture unfolds, the Jews come into focus just as the Gentiles had in the previous section. Likewise, in both portions general terms for sin are followed by very specific accusations (cf. 1:18 with 1:23, 26–32 and 2:1–16 with 2:17–29).


1–4 A stylistic change occurs here. The apostle shifts to the second person singular and enters into dialogue with an imagined interlocutor who has absorbed what was said up to this point and shows by his attitude that he is in hearty agreement with the exposure of Gentile wickedness. This type of dialogue with an imaginary opponent, known as a “diatribe,” was a common rhetorical device in the Greco-Roman world. That Paul had actually experienced such encounters in his missionary preaching is hardly open to doubt. We may have an echo here of just such occasions.

1 The implication in the opening verse is that a Jewish auditor, heartily endorsing the verdict rendered concerning the Gentiles, fails to realize his own plight. True judgment rests on the ability to discern the facts in a given case. If one is able to see the sin and hopelessness of the Gentiles, one should logically be able to see oneself as being in the same predicament. But it is possible to be so taken up with the faults of others that one does not consider one’s own failures (cf. Mt 7:2–3). The charge that the person who passes judgment on others does the very same things is enlarged in 2:17–24. There is a real sting in the allegation “you … do the same things,” for the word prassō (GK 4556; NIV, “do”; NASB, “practice”) is the term used in 1:32 for the practices of the benighted Gentiles. Paul repeats it in 2:2. The Jewish critic is also without excuse (cf. the same word, anapologētos, GK 406, 1:20). “What Paul is here especially concerned about is to break down the supposed protection on which the Jew depended. There is no escape for the Jew in the fact that he aligns himself with God in judging the unrighteousness of the heathen” (Nygren, 118).

2–3 As Paul moves to state the first of the principles of divine judgment (v. 2), he carries the observer with him. Surely this person will agree (“we know”) that when God pronounces judgment on those who make a practice of indulging in sin, his judgment is based on truth. This has no reference to the truth of the gospel but simply means that the judgment is reached on the basis of reality, on the facts of the case and not on the basis of appearances or pretensions. “Do you think you will escape God’s judgment?” (v. 3). Two words are emphatic here—“think” (logizomai, “count as reality,” GK 3357) and the redundant (in the Greek) pronoun sy (“you”) in front of “will escape.” Paul is reading the inmost thoughts of the Jewish debater, whom he understands thoroughly from his own pre-Christian experience. That Judaism could be guilty of such complacency is clear from a passage in Wisdom that immediately follows the portion already noted about pagan idolatry and immorality: “But you, our God, are kind and true, patient, and ruling all things in mercy. For even if we sin we are yours, knowing your power; but we will not sin, because we know that you acknowledge us as yours. For to know you is complete righteousness” (Wis 15:1–3a).

4 Paul carries the probing deeper still, suggesting that in addition to self-righteousness, with its accompanying false security, there is an ignoring and despising of the fact that God, to be true to himself, must bring sin under judgment. There is even a scornful attitude toward God’s tolerance toward his people Israel, as though that tolerance were but a confirmation of their security, if not a sign of weakness on God’s part. “When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong” (Ecc 8:11). God’s “kindness” toward Israel is noted again at a later and crucial point in Romans (11:22).

In this passage “tolerance” and “patience” seem to be explanatory of “kindness” (chrēstotēs, GK 5983), which is repeated as the governing thought. The word rendered “tolerance” has the idea of the restraint of wrath. In classical Greek it is used of a temporary truce. “Patience” or “long-suffering” refers to God’s merciful tolerance of our failures. The intent of the kindness is to give opportunity for “repentance” (metanoia, GK 3567; cf. 2 Pe 3:15), a term that surprisingly occurs in Romans only here, though it must have been often on Paul’s lips in preaching (cf. Ac 20:21). In this epistle he places greater emphasis on faith.

5–6 Using language often applied to the nation of Israel in the OT, Paul refers to the stubbornness and impenitence of his Jewish interlocutor, who has been described as guilty of the very things for which he judges others. This attitude invites retribution and is slowly but surely building up a reservoir of divine wrath that will break on the guilty in the day of reckoning. Then God’s “righteous judgment” will be revealed, patent to all, in contrast to the revelation and indirect working of God’s wrath in the present scene, as depicted in ch. 1.

At that time, a second principle of divine judgment will become apparent—one emphasizing performance—namely, that what people receive depends on how they live: to each person “according to what he [or she] has done [erga, GK 2240; lit., works]” (v. 6). Profession does not take the place of production. This is very close in sense to the first principle (see comments at vv. 2–3 above). In view of the comprehensiveness of the passage as a whole, it will hardly do to explain this day of wrath as the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The explicit statement that God “will give to each person according to what he has done” points to the final reckoning. National judgment may fit into a temporal scheme, but personal judgment belongs to the frontier of the ages to come. The use of the phrase “day of God’s wrath” is decisive enough to settle the issue.

6–11 Paul’s argument in vv. 6–11 is a carefully structured chiasm (a pattern of ABC/C’B’A’), with v. 6 corresponding in thought to v. 11 (God’s judgment is impartial); v. 7 to v. 10 (those who do good will be rewarded); and v. 8 to v. 9 (those who do evil will experience divine wrath). In amplifying the second principle of judgment, Paul makes room for only two broad classes—(1) those “who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality” (v. 7) and (2) those who follow an evil course (v. 8). The first group is promised eternal life. But what can the apostle mean by his breathtaking assertion that those who “by persistence in doing good” are the ones who obtain eternal life? How are we to understand this affirmation and that of v. 13, as well as the statements of vv. 14–15 and 26–27, which seem to imply that the law can indeed be kept? Does not Paul here go against the cumulative argument of 1:18–3:20, namely, that observance of the law cannot result in salvation and that all are trapped in their sin?

Short of the desperate conclusion that Paul simply contradicts himself, and instead assuming that Paul knows what he is saying, how are we to put together these apparently disparate strands? Commentators have adopted two main possibilities. The first is that Paul is speaking only hypothetically (so Moo); i.e., if there were any who could keep the law, they would obtain eternal life, but this option is only theoretical (since all in fact “fall short” [3:23]). The other possibility is to conclude that Paul is actually talking about a manifestation (albeit limited) of righteousness that demonstrates loyalty to the law, as exhibited by Christians (so Fitzmyer, Schreiner, Stuhlmacher).

The key to understanding Paul here is the realization that he does not entertain the notion of a Christian who does not produce the fruit of the Spirit, thus fulfilling the righteous requirement of the law (8:4). Paul in v. 6 quotes Psalm 62:12 or Proverbs 24:12 verbatim (except for slight variations in the form of the verb). The affirmation that God “will give to each person according to what he [or she] has done” is for Paul a statement of Scripture that he cannot and will not go against. Paul indicates in several other places the continuing importance of what a person does (1 Co 6:9–11; 2 Co 5:10; Gal 5:19–25). Here is something of a paradox. For Paul, no person can be saved by observing the law. Salvation, as he will soon argue, depends exclusively on being declared righteous through faith in the atoning death of Christ on the cross. At the same time, however, the person who is justified by faith will, out of a new nature and empowered by the Holy Spirit, exhibit righteous living. The effect of this is that those who are given eternal life are, in fact, people marked by righteousness. As Nygren, 127, notes, “Justification does not mean carte blanche for the Christian, so that God no longer asks as to his works.”

Paul does not contradict here what he says later about the impossibility of gaining salvation by means of the works of the law (3:20). These verses do not teach a system of salvation by works. On the contrary, “The reward of eternal life … is promised to those who do not regard their good works as an end in themselves, but see them as marks not of human achievement but of hope in God. Their trust is not in their good works, but in God, the only source of glory, honour, and incorruption” (Barrett, 45). Paul is simply portraying the motivation and tenor of the life that will culminate in eternal fellowship with God. In view is “the one to whom God the creator grants, as an act of free grace, a new nature in righteousness and the spiritual ability to do what is right, and then establishes at the judgment an advocate at his or her side, against whom no accuser can appear” (Stuhlmacher, 47).

As applied to the “seeker” (cf. Ac 17:27), the principle commits God to honor the moral aim and provide the means for making a decision, as we see in the case of the Ethiopian eunuch (Ac 8) and Cornelius (Ac 10). Both were seekers making use of the light they had. The good works the believer performs do not bring salvation, but they attest the salvation the believer has already received by faith (Ro 6:22), and therefore they have an essential function (cf. Eph 2:8–10). On the other side of the ledger, we find a pattern of evil defined in terms of self-seeking and rejection of the truth leading to divine wrath (Ro 2:8) in terms of trouble and distress (v. 9). In the statement “who reject the truth and follow evil” we detect a distinct echo of 1:18. Destiny does not depend on whether one is a Jew or a Gentile (v. 9). The Jews are mentioned first simply because of God’s prior dealing with Israel in history. Mention of the two divisions of humanity leads naturally to the pronouncement of the third principle: God’s judgment is impartial. “There is no partiality with God” (v. 11). This is the truth that Peter learned in the Cornelius incident (Ac 10:34). Paul’s explanation of this important point belongs to the following paragraph.

12–16 The principle of impartiality has to face a problem as soon as the two groups, Jews and Gentiles, are considered together. God has not dealt with them in similar fashion. To the Jews God has given a revelation of himself in Scripture that has been denied the Gentiles. But in this section, Paul will show that the Gentiles do have a law, and this suffices as a basis for judgment.

12 It is clear that this law has no power to save, for “all who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law.” Gentiles do not perish for the reason that they lack the law that Jews possess but because they sin against the law they do have. In speaking of the Jews, Paul says they “will be judged by the law,” but this does not imply exoneration, for no Jew has succeeded in keeping the law.

13 The expression “all who sin under the law” (v. 12) could strike a Jewish reader as incongruous, but Paul is linking sin with law deliberately in order to prepare the way for his next statement to the effect that the righteous are not “those who hear the law.” We have a reminder in James 1:22–24 of the ease with which a person could hear the law read and go away without any effect on his or her life and conduct. Those who will be “declared righteous,” by contrast, are the doers of the law (v. 13). This is the first occurrence in Romans of the important expression “declared righteous” (NASB, “justified”). Full treatment of this matter must wait until we encounter the term again in ch. 3. Sometimes the verb dikaioō (GK 1467) may have a general, as opposed to a theological, frame of reference, as in the statement “wisdom is proved right by all her children” (Lk 7:35), where vindication is clearly intended. But the passage before us is dealing with law, sin, and judgment, so that the full theological significance of the word meaning “to declare as righteous” should be retained (see comments at Ro 3:20).

Paul’s purpose is to undercut the position of the person who is counting on obedience to the law for acceptance with God. Compliance would have to be perfect if one were to be declared righteous by an absolutely righteous God (cf. Gal 5:3; Jas 2:10). By analogy, the Gentiles are in essentially the same position, because they also are not without law, as Paul goes on to indicate. The future tense of the verb (“will be declared righteous”) favors the conclusion that final judgment is in view. Paul is not raising false hopes here; on the contrary, he is dashing them—in keeping with the progress of the argument. Only after the flimsy edifice of humanly contrived righteousness has been leveled will the apostle be ready to put in its place the sturdy foundation of the justification provided by God in Christ. Though Paul usually uses the verb dikaioō (“justify, declare righteous”) in a realized and positive sense (e.g., Ro 3:24), here the frame of reference is eschatological and negative. Hearing of the law, or mere possession of the law, is no substitute for obedience to the law. (See Klyne R. Snodgrass, “Justification by Grace—To the Doers: An Analysis of the Place of Romans 2 in the Theology of Paul,” NTS 32 [1986]: 72–93.)

14 The opening connective of v. 14—“for”—is important as showing that, in the discussion of the Gentile situation to which Paul now briefly turns, he has in mind a presentation designed to counter the boastfulness of the Jews. He seems anxious to avoid the impression that he is discussing the Gentiles in their entirety. (He says “Gentiles,” not “the Gentiles.”) He is thinking of them in individual terms, not as masses. Furthermore, if he encompassed all people except the Jews in his statement, the contrast with the adverse picture of pagans in ch. 1 would be so startling as to suggest contradiction. There are Gentiles who, despite their apparent disadvantage in not possessing the Mosaic law, “do by nature” what the law requires.

What are these things? Presumably they are not matters peculiar to the law of Moses but moral and ethical requirements widely recognized and honored, such as caring for one’s parents and not stealing or committing murder. It is a commonplace of rabbinic teaching that Abraham kept the laws of Sinai long before they were given. Philo (Abraham, 1:5) taught a correspondence between the law and nature, saying that Moses “wished to show that the enacted ordinances are not inconsistent with nature.” Again, Philo notes that Moses begins his work with an account of the creation of the world, “implying that the world is in harmony with the Law, and the Law with the world, and that the man who observes the Law is constituted thereby a loyal citizen of the world, regulating his doings by the purpose and will of Nature, in accordance with which the entire world itself also is administered” (Creation, 1:3).

Paul states that such Gentiles are “a law for themselves.” By no means does he intend to say that they are indifferent to any law except that which they invent in their self-interest. On the contrary, he goes on to say that they are governed by the particular law that is written on their hearts (v. 15). This ought not to be confused with the promise of the law written in the heart as depicted in Jeremiah 31:33, because if that were the case, as Nygren, 124, observes, Gentiles “would indeed have the law, and that in a more intimate way than the Jew had it.” Paul is not asserting this; rather, he is insisting that the basic requirements of the law are stamped on human hearts. Presumably he can say this because human beings are made in the image of God. C. S. Lewis begins his argument in Mere Christianity (1952; repr., New York: Harper-Collins, 2001, 3–4) by pointing out that when quarrels develop between people, the thing to be determined is who is in the right and who is in the wrong. The parties may differ radically as to their respective positions on this issue, but they are very clear that there is a right and a wrong. Similarly, despite the great differences in laws and customs among peoples around the world, one thing that unites them in a common humanity is the recognition that some things are right and others are wrong.

15 An additional element that belongs to the equipment of the Gentiles is “conscience.” The translation speaks of their consciences as “bearing witness.” In the Greek prefix syn at the front of the verb, there is an emphasis that does not appear in the translation—“bearing witness with.” We may ask, With what? Only one answer seems possible, namely, with the requirements of the law written on the heart. The two function together. The word “conscience” (syneidēsis, GK 5287) does not appear in the OT. Perhaps this is due to the Jews’ overwhelming awareness of the regulating power of revealed truth. However, the operation of conscience is recognized (e.g., in the guilt of Ge 42:21; 2 Sa 24:10), even though the word is lacking.

Paul’s fairly frequent use of “conscience” indicates his indebtedness to his Greek environment and the desirability of capitalizing on a concept that was familiar to his Gentile churches. With reference to this passage, C. A. Pierce (Conscience in the New Testament [London: SCM, 1955], 86) writes, “That the everyday language of the Gentiles contains a word for confessing to feelings of pain on commission or initiation of particular acts—feelings which carry with them the conviction that the acts ought not to have been committed—is first-hand evidence that the Gentiles are subject, by nature, to a ‘natural law’ as the Jews, by vocation, to the Torah.” So it can be maintained that the function of conscience in the Gentile is parallel to the function of the law for the Jew. The way conscience operates is described as a process of accusation or defense by the thoughts of a person, the inner life being pictured as a kind of debating forum, so that at times he or she is exonerated at the bar of conscience, at other times convicted of wrongdoing.

16 The difficulty to be faced here is the determination of what will take place. Does Paul mean that only at the judgment will conscience be engaged in the manner he has just indicated? This would seem to be a severe limitation, unless the intent is to indicate a heightened operation of this God-given monitor as the soul faces the divine assize. If it is correct to take vv. 14–15 as a parenthesis (cf. NIV), then what takes place on the day of judgment is the declaration of righteousness (or otherwise) referred to in v. 13.

God’s judgment will include human “secrets” (cf. 1 Co 4:5). This is the only court able to assess them. Many an act that seems entirely praiseworthy to those who observe it may actually be wrongly motivated; and contrariwise, some things that may seem to merit stern disapproval may pass muster in this supreme court because the intention behind the deed was praiseworthy. The Jews theoretically admitted judgment and certainly welcomed it in the case of the Gentiles, while trying to shield themselves behind their privileged position. The Gentiles admitted the reality of judgment implicitly by the very process of reasoning that either accused or excused their conduct. What the Gentiles did not know was the item included here—that God will judge “through Jesus Christ” (Jn 5:27; Ac 17:31).

Some interpreters have seen in the statement “as my gospel declares” (kata to euangelion [GK 2295] mou; NASB, “according to my gospel”), a fourth principle of judgment intended to be linked with the three already noted. Two of the three principles mentioned earlier are given in the form of similar prepositional phrases with the preposition kata (“according to”): judgment is kata alētheian (GK 237; lit., “according to truth”), v. 2; and kata ta erga (GK 2240) autou (lit, “according to his works”), v. 6. But to make the gospel, in the sense of its content, to be the criterion for judgment in this context is clearly wrong, for Paul is not dealing with the gospel in this chapter. What he is saying is that the gospel he preached includes the prospect of judgment and that it will be conducted through the mediation of Christ.[1]


[1] Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 51–57). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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